To Build More Affordable Housing, Start With Narrower Streets

New research shows that reducing wasteful use of street space and eliminating overly wide streets would increase opportunities for housing development and higher density.

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September 1, 2021, 12:00 PM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

A report in the Journal of the American Planning Association claims that the excessive width of many U.S. streets constrains the potential for increased population density. According to the report, "street design manuals ignore the fact that the more valuable the land, the narrower the road should be." Street design undervalues street space, writes Jean Dimeo, "whereas residential and commercial rents and sale prices make many metropolitan regions increasingly unaffordable." Minimum street widths, like minimum parking requirements, cripple a city's ability to develop more housing and increase density. "In the most expensive county in the data set—Santa Clara (CA)—narrowing the right-of-way to 16 ft would save more than $100,000 per housing unit through reduced land consumption."

Report author Adam Millard-Ball, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, outlines suggestions for reducing wasteful use of street space and making room for more housing. These include reducing some low-volume roadways to "'yield streets,' with a single bidirectional lane and passing places," eliminating street-width requirements, and selling excessive right-of-way to developers. "Rather than requiring a land owner to provide a portion of the property for the street, a city could increase inclusionary housing requirements, require some land to be protected as natural habitat, or levy impact fees for contributions to parks, specialized firefighting equipment and public services."

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